There didn't seem anything particularly unusual about the sale of William Kingsland's art collection, at least at first. A well-known New York art connoisseur, Kingsland died in 2006, and the auction house Christie's was hired inthe months after his death to sell many of his paintings and sculptures. But it turned out that Kingsland was not his given name. His birth name was Melvyn Kohn, and dozens of the artworks in his collection had been stolen from museums and galleries. The most notable include canvases by Pablo Picasso and John Singleton Copley and an Alberto Giacometti sculpture worth as much as a million dollars. "It appears that during a period of time in his life he went into galleries and took things that caught his eye," says New York Public Administrator Ethel Griffin, who is overseeing the case.
So whom did the auction house call for help? The FBI. One of its art theft investigators, Special Agent Jim Wynne, has been working the case since the beginning, researching the provenance of the stolen pieces and interviewing galleries believed to be the last verified owners. "[I wanted] to try and recover this stuff for the victims," Wynne says. And while the rightful owners of some of the pieces have been determined, most of the works still sit in a sort of legal limbo, their exact ownership unclear. The bureau recently posted images of the stolen objects on its website at www.fbi.gov, just a few clicks away from its list of the most wanted terrorists, under the headline: "Stolen Art Uncovered. Is it Yours?"
Meet the nation's art cops, assigned the long and often difficult task of returning stolen masterpieces to their owners. Art theft has become one of the world's most lucrative illegal activities, an estimated $6 billion black market business, with more than 50,000 heists occurring each year. The FBI has taken significant steps to fight the trend in recent years, creating a team of agents dedicated to recovering hot van Goghs and pilfered Monets. "Art is one-of-a-kind history that can never be re-created," says Special Agent Brian Brusokas. "If you take a piece off the wall and hide it away for 40 or 50 years, you're potentially depriving an entire generation, the whole world for that matter, of ever being able to view such a piece."
Federal art crime investigators are not new. The FBI has long had individual agents in New York and Los Angeles focused on museum robberies and art fraud. But after the massive looting of Iraq's National Museum in 2003 in which some 14,000 works were stolen, the bureau decided for the first time to form an art theft team, which now has more than a dozen agents assigned to regions in the United States. The unit aims to recover any illegal cultural property and often works with foreign law enforcement agencies. The squad has posted some major successes, recovering works by Matisse and Goya and one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights. "Art easily moves across state and international boundaries," says Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the art theft program. "Having this network of agents has been very effective."
To join the art theft team, agents must receive special training in art and art recovery. They learn the difference between an etching and an engraving; they learn how criminals forge documents to help slip fakes into the legitimate art market. "Art is different. It's not like cars, where there are registries with license plate numbers and registration numbers," says Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit that specializes in art crime. "There is no one place where every work of art that has ever been created can be found, and it's not easy for the uninitiated to differentiate between different media, whether it's types of prints or paintings or works on paper. It helps to have a trained eye."
Art law is different, too. While thieves can be prosecuted under stolen property statutes, specific laws have been enacted to counter art crime. After the 1990 heist of a Vermeer and three Rembrandts from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Sen. Edward Kennedy pushed through Congress the Theft of Major Artwork statute. The law makes it a federal offense to own or conceal any artwork that is stolen from a museum and is more than 100 years old or worth more than $100,000. The penalties include fines and as much as 10 years in prison.
But for law enforcement, and the art world, the return of a missing object often holds more significance than a conviction. "I don't think many people realize that missing art is as important as it is. What's being stolen and secreted away is staggering," says Virginia Curry, who worked art crimes for the bureau for more than a decade and retired in 2006. "For me, the first priority is to recover the art. The second consideration is to identify the most culpable person involved."
Still, recovering stolen art isn't easy. Part of the problem is figuring out the exact motivation; people steal art for all sorts of reasons. Some thieves are gangsters hoping to pilfer a trophy. Some are disgruntled security guards looking for revenge. Sometimes curators pocket artifacts because they believe that they can take better care of them than the museum or gallery that owns them. A thief once swiped a Chagall painting from New York City's Jewish Museum, and a few days later the institution received a ransom note, saying that the canvas would not be returned until Israel and the Palestinians made lasting peace. (Some months later, the Chagall was recovered in a postal center in Topeka, Kan., and investigators now believe that the thief tried to get rid of the work by sending it as a dead letter.)
For the most part, though, the crooks are motivated by cash. While the art market has slumped in recent months along with the rest of the economy, a top painting still can fetch tens of millions of dollars, with a rare Impressionist work sharing the same value as a corporate jet or a small technology firm. During an FBI sting operation to recover a stolen Rembrandt self-portrait a few years ago, an undercover agent asked the seller if he had any interest in the old master canvas. "No," the man baldly replied. "I'm in it for the money."
But is there really money to be made in art theft? For the most part, the answer is no. Criminals have few options when it comes to profiting from art crime. Auction houses have no interest in selling looted art; legitimate collectors have no interest in purchasing it. Even keeping stashes of stolen art for pleasure is unlikely. Investigators have never found any evidence of a so-called Dr. No (named after the villain from the James Bond movie), a shady, art-loving millionaire who snaps up stolen paintings for late-night viewing in the basement of his Caribbean mansion. "Art theft is a crime of opportunity," says Agent Wynne. "The problem for the thieves is that you can't sell the stuff. If it is so noteworthy and so valuable, it's extraordinarily hard to sell."
Most stolen art ends up slipping into the criminal netherworld. Crooks will hide the item in an attic and wait for a good time to sell it, or an enterprising rogue might trade the pilfered work to other criminals for guns and drugs as a sort of underworld currency. And through dedicated investigative work and good relationships with art dealers and collectors, the bureau has been able to track down more than 1,000 stolen objects over the past four years.
The FBI often recovers artworks when they come up for sale, as oblivious criminals regularly bring hot art into Christie's or Sotheby's not knowing that the auctioneers vet objects before they go under the hammer. It helps, too, that crooks don't typically have much of an understanding of art and art history. A handyman once swiped a painting from a home in Connecticut and sold the canvas to a local antiques dealer for $100. He later told investigators that he was hoping to make a little cash. But it turned out that French artist Henri Fantin-Latour had created the work, and it was worth more than $1 million.
Still, many art theft cases take years, decades, even more than a century, to crack. During the final days of the Civil War, Union Army soldiers stole North Carolina's Bill of Rights out of the state Capitol. Commissioned by President George Washington, the document was one of only 14 copies created after Congress proposed the first amendments, and for more than 140 years, it remained missing. Then, in 2003, two antiques dealers tried to peddle the work for $4 million. A millionaire philanthropist showed interest in the document, claiming that he would buy the artifact on behalf of Philadelphia's Constitution Center. But the philanthropist was actually an undercover FBI agent, and investigators seized the document. "It was like touching history," one agent said.
As for the Kingsland paintings, Wynne continues to look for the rightful owners. The caper grew more curious when, after Kingsland's death, a mover hired by New York State to haul the collection from Kingsland's apartment to a warehouse stole two Picasso sketches, each valued at $30,000. "Those works had been stolen themselves. They had been stolen in the '60s and they were in Kingsland's apartment, and then the movers came, and then they were stolen again," says Wynne. After some sleuthing, agents learned that a Manhattan-based art broker had tried to sell one of the drawings, and law enforcement eventually recovered the works from the mover's mother-in-law. And so, at least for now, there's one art world mystery fewer waiting to be solved.
Ulrich Boser, a former U.S. News reporter, is the author of "The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft."